On Tweaking

My mother is a fine woman, and I love her to pieces. Often, though, it seems I have the following sort of conversation with her*, and it exasperates the daylights out of me:

Mom: I can’t cook.

Me: Why do you say that?

Mom: I was having people over and I wanted a great dessert. My friend JoAnn makes wonderful rice pudding, so I used her recipe, but it didn’t turn out. And here I was thinking I’d be serving something so tasty and healthy at the same time, but it was terrible.

Me: Umm… rice pudding’s really not all that healthy. Not that I don’t love it.

Mom: Well, I wanted it to be low fat, low calorie, and high fiber. So I substituted nonfat milk for the cream and cut the sugar in half, and instead of white rice I used half brown rice and half quinoa. Oh, and I was out of cinnamon but nutmeg was on sale so I used that instead.

Me: OK then.

Even though I know that there are many people who bake like my dear mom cooks*, it always surprises me a little when I hear people asking what went wrong with their bread: they followed the directions for that “foolproof recipe” to the letter, only substituting whole wheat for white flour, so why oh why did they get a patio paver instead of a nice loaf?

Now I’m not saying that it’s not possible to make great bread from whole wheat flour or other more healthful ingredients. There are certainly some terrific recipes out there for doing so, and one of my resolutions is to do more whole-grain baking. But whole grains and other ingredients are different critters from your basic white flour, so simply substituting them into any old recipe, using methods that work for basic white bread, will probably not produce optimal results.

I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t experiment and adapt recipes to make them our own. In fact, one of the things I love most about bread baking is doing just that. But I do so knowing that 1) my result will most likely be different from what the original recipe intended; 2) my result may not be good; and 3) good or not, if I make a whole bunch of modifications at once I’m not going to know which ones made what difference.

So with a new recipe I usually follow it exactly at first, just to see. Then I modify away, usually one tweak at a time, in one of two general modes: 1) I’m in foreign territory, but I’m willing to risk baking a bad bread in the interest of scientific discovery, or 2) I have some basis, given my prior experience, for hoping that it will turn out acceptably well, or — and it does happen once in a while! – even better than the original. Of course, plenty often, it doesn’t work that way, so I’ve gotten really adept at retroactively switching into Mode 1.

*Mom, thanks for being a good sport. XXOO

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. says

    I agree. I find myself very frustrated when people sub like crazy on a recipe before even trying it out as is. There is a reason that those ingredients are in the recipe. I also tend to swap things out one at a time to see what the changes will be, sometimes they are great, sometimes disastrous, but as you said (typed) at least you know what has caused the end result when you sub out one thing at a time. :D

  2. says

    I’m afraid that I do make changes for many first time recipes – but only the sort of changes that I’m pretty sure will not affect the outcome.

    For instance, with your mother’s rice pudding, I might have tried using 2% milk and a bit of butter instead of the cream and rather than substituting all of the white rice, I would use half white rice and half of the other whole grain types. And half of the sugar but add some dates to make up for the lost sweetness. That’s of course assuming that I would ever make rice pudding in the first place… I’m not the biggest fan of rice pudding – but my husband adores it and makes a soupy Indian-style rice pudding using Thai rice, 3% milk, cardamom, and a little bit of butter and sugar.(1/4 c sugar for 4 c milk and 1/2 c rice….)

    I invariably add a little bit of wholewheat flour to any bread recipe that calls for 100% all-purpose and I invariably reduce the amount of yeast for any recipe that calls for instant yeast – simply because I use active dry yeast. If a recipe calls for 1/2 tsp instant yeast, I use 1/2 tsp active dry yeast even though in ARTISAN BAKING ACROSS AMERICA, Maggie Glezer says that 3 gm compressed yeast is equivalent to 2 gm (1/2 tsp) active dry OR 1 gm (3/8 tsp) instant yeast”.

    I used to be quite casual about making switches but finally learned my lesson when making “stir-fried chicken and almonds” but instead of using chicken, I used fish and instead of using almonds, I used sesame seeds. Now, fish and sesame seeds are probably fine together but they do NOT work if one tries to stir-fry them in the same fashion as chicken and almonds….

    -Elizabeth

    P.S. Hmmm, perhaps my casual behaviour towards measurements is the reason that it took me 17 days to capture wild yeast? :-]

  3. Trish says

    I’m SO glad you brought this up! My X-hubby used to go on and on about my fabulous Beef Stroganoff so a friend asked for the recipe – let’s see – she substituted round steak for tenderloin, catsup for tomato paste, garlic salt for fresh garlic, etc etc – then she told me it was “OK” but not as good as she thought it might be…

    Sheesh!

    Trish

  4. says

    Jen, I like your style.

    Elizabeth, you’re more adventurous than I would be the first time around with the pudding. But the fish and sesame does sound like a good combination…

    Hi BZ, nice that you stopped by! Please don’t follow my recipes exactly, do make them your own, but if you expect the unexpected you’ll probably be a lot happier. And maybe don’t experiment too much when company’s coming!

    Trish, I hear you!

  5. says

    I don’t know that I would call it being “adventurous” with the pudding, Susan… more like a bit foolish. I must say though, (in my own defense) that with new cake or cookie recipes, I follow them pretty much to the letter on the first time around.

    The fish and sesame was a pretty good combination after I stopped being amazed that sesame seeds pop right out of the pan when they are heated as well as realizing that fish takes much less time to cook than chicken. (Duh. Of COURSE sesame seeds pop; of COURSE fish takes less time….)

    -Elizabeth

  6. says

    I can usually taste a recipe as I read it. I substitute all the time but I don’t tinker too much with the critical elements of the recipe. I’m not much on low fat ingredients but will cut down on fat if I can and it doesn’t matter that much. Rice pudding. Make it as written and eat less! Creme brulee—don’t mess with it! I almost never fool with a cake recipe the first time I make it.

  7. says

    Elizabeth, don’t you just love hindsight?

    Mary Jo, no wonder you’re such a great cook: you have the taste equivalent of perfect pitch. Eat less rice pudding? That’s asking a lot of me.

  8. says

    “Mom: Well, I wanted it to be low fat, low calorie, and high fiber. So I substituted nonfat milk for the cream and cut the sugar in half, and instead of white rice I used half brown rice and half quinoa. Oh, and I was out of cinnamon but nutmeg was on sale so I used that instead.”

    So fun!

    I totally agree with you regarding ‘respecting’ the recipie!
    Love your page.

  9. says

    I am one of the experimenters, but I am honest enough to call it ‘cooking without a net’ and I recognize that 40+ years of kitchen-time is no guarantee that my subs won’t turn out awful. I do, however, understand the science behind the ingredients enough to know how to do this, even with cake recipes, even the first time. Well, most of the time.

    I am so glad you found A Year in Bread so that I found you.

  10. says

    Fru B, I’m glad it was clear that I was having some fun to make my point.

    kitchenMage, I’m in awe of people who understand all that. I’m kinda sorta getting there with bread but for anything else I’m completely hopeless.

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